Hans was flying a Junkers 88 night fighter over the Ruhr, tracking down a British Lancaster bomber, when he met the alien.
To be truthful, Hans’ name was really Vicky, and he wasn’t flying a Ju 88, and it certainly wasn’t night over western Germany in 1944, and there wasn’t a Lancaster in the air anywhere. But Vicky was always a romantic, daydreaming more than was good for anybody.
“That Vicky,” his teachers used to complain to each other in school. “His head’s in the clouds, always.” They said so to his parents, too, when they came for PTA meetings.
“Vicky,” his father would admonish him afterwards. “Your teachers say your head’s always in the clouds. You’d better do something about it.”
So Vicky did something about it. He made sure the rest of him was in the clouds as well, and – when a relative gave him a bit of money – decided to spend it on flying lessons.
It didn’t impress anybody. “That Vicky,” everybody said. “He’ll never amount to anything.”
Vicky didn’t care about what they thought. He’d wanted to learn to fly, and he’d learnt to fly, and by whatever god might or might not exist, that made him better than the rest of them, who even struggled to drive cars. Flying was glamorous.
Well, actually, there was absolutely nothing at all glamorous about flying a Cessna over endless stretches of featureless plain in the middle of nowhere, so Vicky began to look around for something interesting. It would have to be something really interesting, because though he’d just got his private pilot’s licence, this was the last flight. After this there was no money left for any more. (His father had been happy: “Time to get your head out of the clouds, boy.”) Tomorrow, he’d have to try and get back to what people called the real world. He tried not to think about that. There was still an hour’s flight to go.
Some way ahead, he saw a patch of blackish cloud, hanging like a stain in the otherwise clear air. It wasn’t even directly in his path, and he’d been told over and over by his instructors not to fly into clouds if he could avoid it. So, of course, he automatically moved the control column and the rudders to line up the shimmering propeller with the cloud, almost without thinking. It wasn’t that big a cloud, anyway. He’d be out of it in a minute or two.
Seconds later, daylight faded as the cloud closed around him. It was a surprisingly dark cloud for one that wasn’t very big, since there was no towering mass of vapour to throw a shadow, but that never occurred to Vicky. Instead, he took one contented look around, blinked twice, and there he was, Oberleutnant Hans von Neunhof, behind the controls of a Junkers 88, the heavy radar aerials just visible in the darkness ahead.
Somewhere in front of him, he knew, would be the Lancaster he was looking for, the one his radar operator had vectored him on. He looked up and ahead, fingering the firing buttons on his control stick, because one more kill and he’d be in line for the Knight’s Cross. He was the best damned night fighter pilot in the world, and when he tracked a target, by all that was holy he tracked it down and destroyed it. Yes, tomorrow the name of Hans von Neunhof would be in all the papers, the hero of the Reich.
He looked over to his right, to see if his observer was looking for the target as intently as he was supposed to be, and there was the alien sitting in the right-hand seat.
The alien saw Vicky at the exact same moment. It didn’t reach out to rend him limb from limb. It didn’t burn him to death with a laser. It didn’t even stick some kind of probe into a body orifice. It did what Vicky did.
In other words, the alien screamed. They both reared away from each other and screamed as loudly as they could. The joint scream was so loud, in fact, that they screamed in shock again at the first scream, and then, because the two screams had so deafened them that they weren’t sure they’d screamed at all, they screamed a third time.
Then Vicky’s throat was too sore to scream any more – or talk, for that matter – so he turned resolutely away from the alien and stared dead ahead through the windscreen into the murk. The murk seemed to go on for a remarkably long time – surely the cloud hadn’t been this large when he’d entered it? He thought about this for some time, and then experimentally cleared his throat. It seemed to be working again. Cautiously, from the corner of his eye, he glanced towards the right seat.
The alien was still there, and it chose the exact same moment to glance at Vicky from out of the corner of one of its triangular eyes. They both hurriedly looked away again, and then, after a few moments, stole another glance at each other.
The alien looked horrible. Even Vicky, who had never seen an alien before, and was thus in no position to judge, was constrained to admit that it looked horrible, with its telescoping neck and its triangular eyes, its beaked bony face and its leathery skin. It was so horrible looking, in fact, that Vicky felt obscurely sorry for it. Then it opened its beak and displayed a terrifying array of needle teeth, and Vicky stopped feeling sorry for it and went right back to being petrified with fear.
“Please don’t hurt me,” the alien said.
“Hurt you?” Vicky was so astounded at the idea that he forgot to be surprised at its speaking English. “Hurt you? I was going to ask you not to hurt me.”
“In that case,” the alien asked, “why have you invaded my stratocraft?”
“Invaded your...” Vicky lost his fear in a burst of indignation. “I like that. It’s you who’s invaded my aeroplane. I was just flying along and there you are, without as much as a by-your-leave.”
The alien looked at Vicky and blinked. This blinking was rather unsettling because its eyelids slid over the triangular eyes from the corners, like unfolding translucent wings. “I see,” it said at length. “Now, if you don’t mind, could you please tell me exactly where you think you are.”
“I’m at the controls of my Cessna,” Vicky said, still indignantly. “Well, to be accurate it’s the flying club’s Cessna, but I’m flying it, and I don’t have to land it for a while yet, so –“
The alien had been listening with what seemed to be great concentration. “If I get your meaning,” it said, “this...Cessna...of yours is some kind of atmospheric transport device. Right?”
“It’s an aeroplane, as you know perfectly well.”
“Well, there’s a bit of a problem.” The alien scratched its beak with a huge hooked claw. “Because – you see – I don’t know. And I don’t know because as far as I’m concerned, I’m sitting behind the controls of my stratoship, and you’re the one who appeared suddenly out of nowhere. You see the problem?”
Vicky tried to see the problem. It made him dizzy. It made him so dizzy that he began to feel as if the plane was lurching erratically through the air. So he thought of another problem.
“How come you can speak English?” he asked suspiciously.
“English?” the alien blinked again, rapidly. “What in the name of Aldebaran is English?”
“The...” Vicky was struck speechless for a moment. “The...language...we’re both speaking.”
“I,” said the alien with as much dignity as a triangular-eyed, beak-faced, needle-toothed, leather-skinned, telescope-necked clawed monster could have, “am speaking...” it made a noise which sounded like a cat spitting and clawing a laughing hyena, while a cow mood in the background. “And so are you.”
There was nothing to say to that, so Vicky said nothing.
“I think,” the alien said after a while, “that we’re talking a little at cross-purposes. It seems that we’re both convinced that the other is the invader. Could you tell me just how you came to find me in your craft?”
“Well,” Vicky began, “I was just flying along, when I saw this cloud...” He considered talking of the night-fighter and the Ritterkreuz, and quickly decided against it. “So I was flying through the cloud,” he concluded, “and all of a sudden you were there. That’s all.” A fresh idea came to him. “Where’s your mother-ship?”
“Mother-ship? I don’t understand.”
“The ship which brought you to this planet,” Vicky said impatiently. “The one, you know, you used to fly through space. Is it hiding on the other side of the moon? Is it...” he searched his memory for whatever he’d read in popular science articles. “Is it shielded by dark matter or something?”
“Dark matter?” the alien shuddered so that its leathery skin flapped as noisily as an old umbrella. “Horrid stuff. I never touch it myself. But what makes you think I’m flying over your planet? You’re flying over mine!”
Vicky gulped. He didn’t even think of challenging this pronouncement. Somehow, it was too true to be denied. “So,” he said in a small voice, “we’re each flying in the other’s craft, over the other’s planet, speaking the other’s language, is that it?”
“That,” said the alien, “would seem to be the case.” It brooded for a moment. “What’s your world like?”
“Awful,” Vicky said promptly. “Not a moment of excitement anywhere. What about yours?”
“Terrible,” the alien said. “No peace, not for an instant.” It shook its head. “But enough of that. Time’s wasting. Any ideas on how we could get back to our own realities, such as they are?”
“Well,” Vicky said unhappily, “if we keep flying like this, I’ll run out of fuel and crash eventually, I suppose.”
“And I’ll get beyond the reach of...” the alien said something which sounded like a rattlesnake fighting a gorilla in the middle of a rainstorm. “I don’t see that this is much of a positive outlook, do you?”
“No,” Vicky admitted. He suddenly sat up straight, struck by an idea so sharp that it felt like a needle to the base of his skull. “Listen,” he gasped. “Suppose we change places?”
“What?” the alien asked, “are you going on about?”
“I’m sitting in the pilot’s seat of my craft,” Vicky said. “You, I take it, are sitting in the control seat of yours. Suppose we change places, we might be able to get things back as they were.”
“That sounds crazy,” the alien told him. “There’s not even any logic in it.”
“Do you have a better idea?” Vicky asked, bristling.
“Um, no,” the alien admitted. “It might even be insane enough to work. Let’s try it then. Be careful getting up – there’s a wall right behind you and a ledge over your head.”
“Thanks,” Vicky said, and pressed himself as far back as he could to give the alien room to pass. It smelt vaguely of musk aftershave lotion. He manoeuvred himself toward the right hand seat, and began to sit down. As he did, suddenly everything around him began to waver and change.
From a great distance, he heard the alien asking, “What’s your name, by the way?”
“Vicky,” said Vicky.
“Why,” the alien said, “that’s odd. My name’s Vicky too.”
Vicky looked quizzically at the alien. It really was a very ugly beast, he thought, with its round blunt head, its flattened features, its oval eyes and its smooth skin. It was so ugly he felt sorry for it, and clacked his beak contentedly. The alien opened its mouth, and Vicky, seeing the flat yellow teeth, felt again a fleeting moment of terror. But it passed.
“I think I’m leaving now,” he said. “Bon voyage.”
“You too,” the alien said. “Have a good...” and then it was gone.
Sighing contentedly, Vicky swung the stratocraft round and down, his claws pressing at the controls, lining it up along the energy beam pointing homewards. Things flapped around him in the black-and-orange sky, things that screeched and snapped and shot bolts of plasma in an attempt to incinerate him. Gleefully, he jinked and twisted to avoid their attacks, and sent back a burst of tracer fire to keep them at bay. Something rushed at him, trailing fire, and he shot it out of the air with a counter-missile.
“I feel sorry for that alien,” he thought, the tracers spitting again. “Poor thing, he’ll never have fun like this.”
Meanwhile, on Earth, the Cessna landed. Heaving a sigh of relief, and scarcely looking over his shoulder, Vicky climbed out and walked away.
In the end, some were happy. And that's the best there is.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013